Story Problems: Learning Narrative through Pictures

By Greg Stump, WITS Writer-in-Residence

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Comic by Maya, a 1st grade student at Broadview-Thomson K-8 School.

As a teaching artist who helps students of all ages learn to make comics, I’m often fascinated by how a single lesson or exercise can be just as useful for the very young as it is for teens and adults. Short comic strip stories, humble though they may be, seem to be especially effective in teaching story structure to anyone. This is because all parts of the story (introducing a character in a setting; throwing a conflict/problem or disruptive event into the scenario; heightening the drama/tension; and resolving the matter as the character is restored/transformed) are not just visible, but adjacent to each other as well. In a comic, we can see all at once how the story ends and begins, or we can read it piecemeal or in reverse order — unlike text narratives, which are inflexibly linear, or movies, which can only show us one part of the story at a time.

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Anyone who spends time with young children knows that they can tell stories even before they’re able to write them down, and this is never more evident to me than when teaching them comics. As a WITS writer-in-residence this year, I was very happy to get to teach the first graders at Broadview-Thomson, in part because it’s so much fun to see what little kids (who are still learning how to write) will come up with when asked to draw out their stories. The comic you see here, drawn by a first grader named Maya in Jeanne Medalia’s class, is a great example of how a simple six-panel comic can demonstrate both a solid grasp of narrative structure, and a delightful imagination to boot.

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As the story begins in the first panel, our butterfly protagonist leisurely flaps past a flower. Suddenly, disaster: the butterfly collides into a tree (the “disruptive event”) in the second scene. The “rising action” in panels three and four show our hero laid out on a stretcher and taken by ambulance to a hospital bed, where it lies miserable and injured. Fortunately, a nurse mends the butterfly’s damaged wing, and the comic ends much as it begins — with the butterfly in flight, only now with relief after having gone through a dramatic ordeal.

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Again, this is a simple exercise, but the use of a vertical six-panel grid to tell a story in pictures can be quite powerful in getting kids — or anyone, really — to see, quite literally, that what makes a story engaging is how it introduces and resolves problems. And when assigned to students as young and creative as Maya, it leads to work that is as charming as it is instructive.

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